The heartbreaking story of Tahlequah, the orca mother who won't let go of her dead baby and still clings to its corpse more than a week after losing her newborn, continues to shake the world.
The mourning mother has been spotted carrying around her dead calf for eight straight days now, in what experts with the Whale Museum on San Juan Island are describing as "a deep grieving process," reports AP News.
As previously reported by the Inquisitr, the calf was born on July 24 to a family of endangered killer whales living off the coast of Washington state.
The infant was initially seen alive and swimming around its mother, notes the Center for Whale Research in Washington. Unfortunately, the baby orca only survived for about half an hour, dying shortly after being born and right under the gaze of its mother.
Unwilling to let go of her dead child, the second one she's ever brought to term after a successful pregnancy eight years ago and a miscarriage in more recent years, the 20-year-old orca embarked on a grim vigil, relentlessly carrying around its lifeless body everywhere she goes.
According to NPR, Tahlequah was seen pushing along her baby's corpse for hundreds of miles, either balancing it on her forehead and nudging it through the water with her nose or gripping it by the flipper with her mouth to keep it afloat.
"It's a very tragic tour of grief," says Ken Balcomb, founder of the whale research center.Sometimes, the grieving orca mother loses her grip on the dead calf and it briefly sinks in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest, but she immediately dives down to retrieve her child's body, refusing to abandon it to a cold, watery grave.
"I can only imagine, once that baby took breath and swam by mom, that the bond they would have already shared had to have deepened. So maybe that makes this even more painful," Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum, said in a statement.
While we can only speculate on what could be going on in Tahlequah's mind, the morbid ritual of caring for her dead calf is obviously taking a toll on her physically.
The Independent reports that the mourning mother keeps falling behind the rest of the pod as she struggles to keep on carrying the weight of the dead calf. On several occasions, the grieving orca showed signs of exhaustion, appearing the grow weaker during the day, but somehow managing to renew her strength overnight and exhibiting a "more normal swim pattern in the morning," said Atkinson.
Tahlequah was last spotted on Tuesday evening, in a 1,000-foot-deep stretch of water near the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia, notes The Seattle Times."I am relieved we see her, that she is healthy and swimming strongly, and that she is with her family," said Taylor Shedd of the Soundwatch whale monitoring program run by the Whale Museum. "But it is so emotional that she is so caring. It boggles my mind. To carry it is hard for her physically and mentally. It is just heartbreaking."
Tahlequah's behavior sends a powerful message, says Balcomb, who points out that this particular family of killer whales is in a dire situation due to dwindling food sources.
The grieving orca and her family, known as the J pod, belong to a group called the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), numbering no more than 75 individuals living in three distinct pods.
This endangered population of killer whales hasn't seen a successful pregnancy in three years, with "approximately 75 percent of newborns in the recent two decades," since the group has been designated as endangered, failing to survive, explains the Center for Whale Research.
"We should be getting about nine babies a year," Balcomb says.
This makes the loss of Tahlequah's calf all the more tragic. Experts are also concerned that the exhaustion of carrying around her dead baby's corpse might put the mother's life in danger as well.
But Tahlequah, also known as J35, is not the only one in the family going through a rough time. Another member of her pod, designated as J50, seems to be starving to death, according to The Seattle Times.
"The ultimate cause of the SRKW population decline and poor reproduction is food related: the primary prey species for these top marine predators is Chinook salmon, with most spawning populations also listed as 'Endangered' and many already extinct," states the Center for Whale Research.
Researchers will continue to follow Tahlequah and monitor the grieving orca mother until she lets go of her dead calf. Their plan is to try and retrieve the body to find out why the baby orca died so abruptly.